By Dr. Josh Mulvihill
“We will never do family ministry at this church.” Those words were uttered to me by the senior pastor of a church where I served as an associate pastor. I had been a pastor at the church for nearly a decade in marriage and student ministry, and my eyes had been opened to the importance of the home. When I asked the senior pastor if I could equip parents to disciple their children, I had a conviction that God designed parents as the primary disciple-makers of children, but that was about all. I didn’t really know how it would impact children or youth ministry. I had no strategy or plan. I had not defined what family ministry meant. I didn’t have a well-developed theology of family or church. I had a biblically motivated conviction but learned that wasn’t enough.
Despite my best effort, I initially failed to persuade the senior pastor to embrace family ministry, and I learned a lot through my mistakes. From the many conversations I’ve had and emails I’ve received, I’ve learned I’m not the only person that struggled in this way. In fact, I think it’s the norm. If you are spinning your tires to move the family ministry needle at your church, welcome to the club!
I received an email from a children’s pastor at a large multi-site church that expresses the hopes and challenges that many of us have experienced: “I’m so very hopeful about having a family ministry at our church, and have been for four to five years. I have presented this idea to two different pastors at our church at two different times, and it hasn’t caught their attention. I have fragmented ideas, but I’m just not sure how a family ministry would really work. Therefore, I need help on how to present the importance of family ministry.”
Can you relate to this pastor? I know I can! Through my experience, I learned that the family ministry discussion requires a pastoral heart to shepherd other leaders to a place of biblical understanding. In the eyes of the senior pastor, I was threatening the status quo and questioning traditional age-based ministry models, which have been the accepted norm in the North American church for the past few generations. It’s what he grew up with, how he was trained in seminary, and what he embraced as orthodoxy. I’m sure he was frustrated that a young whipper-snapper had the audacity to suggest that there may be a better way forward. The senior pastor told me, “We hired you to work with students, not their parents.” I needed to help him understand the “why” of family ministry better, and that required some leadership from me to move him from “working with students, not their parents,” to “working with students and their parents.” I wanted the senior pastor to value family ministry, but it was difficult for him to embrace ambiguity, and it’s nearly impossible for a church to implement it. He needed theological clarity and a compelling biblical vision, and I needed to provide it. Once that happened, movement began. By God’s grace, the senior pastor who told me he would never do family ministry was eventually persuaded that it was biblical and began to incorporate family ministry into the DNA of the church.
Why Family Ministry?
There are 168 hours in a week. For children, media gets 35+ hours. Education gets 30+ hours. The church gets only 1-2 hours. Combine that with many parents and grandparents doing little to disciple the next generation, and we get Judges 2:10, “And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel.” Family ministry is essential for every church because it’s God’s good design for the evangelism and discipleship of the next generation.
The current church-centered paradigm has led to these concerning trends:
No family worship, intentional plan, or training by the church. “A majority of parents do not spend any time during a typical week discussing religious matters or studying religious materials with their children . . . parents typically have no plan for the spiritual development of their children; do not consider it a priority, have little or no training in how to nurture a child’s faith.”1
Grandparents are minimized and marginalized. Less than 25% understand their biblical role; few churches equip grandparents to disciple the next generation.
Infrequent church attendance. The average child attends an evangelical megachurch fewer than two times per month.2 Lifeway Research3 and the Barna Group4 found that two-thirds of young people drop out of church by their early adult years.
Strong media and educational influence. The average young person logs over 7 hours of screen time per day and 16,000 educational hours between K-12. “Children will be in school 60 times as much as in church.”5
Biblical worldview is low. While 68% of Americans identify as Christian, only 4% have a biblical worldview, and only 2% of pre-teen parents have a biblical worldview, according to research by George Barna.6
Theological confusion about church and family. The church operates with a church-centered, family-supported model rather than a family-centered, church-supported approach.
Philosophically, for the past few generations, the church has operated as if it was primary, not supplementary, done little to equip parents, and ignored grandparents and Christian education. George Barna writes, “Many of the church leaders talk about the importance of the family, but in practice, they have written off the family as an agency of spiritual influence. Their assumption is that if the family is going to be influenced, it is the organized church that will do the influencing, primarily through its events—worship services, classes, special events, etc. This philosophy causes the impetus behind youth (and children’s) ministry to be fixing what is broken—that is, to substitute the efforts of the church for those of parents since most of the latter do not provide the spiritual direction and accountability that their children need. But there is a procedural problem here: kids take their cues from their family, not from their youth ministers. God’s plan was for the church to support the family, and for the family to be the front line of ministry within the home.”7
Churches have said to families, “Bring your children to us. Let us teach them about Christ, and we will include you in the process. Help us develop Sunday school, small groups, retreats, and vacation bible school. The message we are communicating to families is that the church should be the focal point for nurturing faith in their children.”8
Parents are relying on this pattern for the spiritual training of their children, and the results are not good. If we continue with this approach, we will continue to lose a high number of our children to the world. A change is needed.
The Biblical Model for Family Discipleship
God created two great commission institutions for the evangelism and discipleship of children: home and church. The family is given the God-ordained role of evangelism and discipleship of future generations, and the church is instructed to equip the family for the ministry of parenting and grandparenting. Psalm 78:7-8 summarizes our aim with the next generation: “so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments; and they should not be like their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation.”
Five Primary Areas of Family Ministry
Marriage: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion” (Gen. 1:28). “A man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). “And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth” (Mal. 2:15).9
Parents: “You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deut. 6:2-9). “Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and forsake not your mother’s teaching” (Prov. 1:8).
Grandparents: “Only take care, and keep your soul diligently . . . teach them to your children and children’s children” (Deut. 4:9).
Education: “The student [disciple] is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like the teacher” (Luke 6:40). “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov. 9:10).
The Church: “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-12).
Family Ministry Is Strategic
Rob Reinow said, “If you spend an hour with children, they get one hour of ministry. If you spend an hour training and equipping parents, your hour multiplies itself into hundreds of hours of ministry in the home.” The church needs to shift its emphasis from the direct discipleship of children to the equipping of families to disciple children.
The RenewaNation Family Ministry Academy will help you capture a biblical vision for family discipleship. This new online program provides the flexibility you need to earn your Family Ministry Certificate while successfully fulfilling your responsibilities to family and ministry. Over nine months, you will learn how to define family ministry, assess what is happening in homes today, design a family ministry strategy for your church, gain many practical tools, and be equipped to lead a successful family ministry.
A family ministry expert will join us each month for training, and targeted books on family ministry will be read and discussed. The small group size allows for rich interaction about the why of family ministry, discipling your family, theology of family ministry, equipping parents, training grandparents, education matters, and strengthening marriages. If you are hopeful about having a family ministry at your church and want help to equip families, then the Family Ministry Academy is for you!
Learn more about the Family Ministry Academy at renewanation.org/church-and-family.
Dr. Josh Mulvihill is the Executive Director of Church and Family Ministry at RenewaNation. He served as a pastor for nearly 20 years, serves on the board of Awana, and helps to provide leadership to the Christian Grandparent Network. He holds a Ph.D. from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of Biblical Grandparenting, Preparing Children for Marriage, Biblical Worldview, and 50 Things Every Child Needs to Know Before Leaving Home. Josh is married to Jen, and they have five children. Josh blogs at GospelShapedFamily.com.
George Barna, “Parents Accept Responsibility for their Child’s Spiritual Development but Struggle with Effectiveness,” Barna Group, accessed October 11, 2016, https://barna.com/research/parents-accept-responsibility-for-their-childs-spiritual-development-but-struggle-with-effectiveness.
Larry Fowler, The Question Nobody Asks About Our Children (Steamwood, IL: Awana, 2014), 11.
Lifeway Research, “Most Teenagers Drop Out of Church When They Become Young Adults,” Publishing Organization or Name of Website in Roman, January 15, 2019, https://research.lifeway.com/2019/01/15/most-teenagers-drop-out-of-church-as-young-adults.
Barna Group, “Church Dropouts Have Risen to 64%—But What About Those Who Stay?,” Barna Group, September 4, 2019, https://barna.com/research/resilient-disciples.
George Barna, “American Worldview Inventory 2023 - Release #1: Incidence of Biblical Worldview Shows Significant Change Since the Start of the Pandemic,” The Cultural Research Center, February 28, 2023, https://georgebarna.com/research/90_american-worldview-inventory-2023.
George Barna, Third Millennium Teens: Research on the Minds, Hearts, and Souls of American’s Teenagers (Ventura, CA: Barna Research Group, 1999), 66-67.
Ben Freudenberg, The Family Friendly Church (Loveland, CO: Group Publisher, 1988), 28.
George Barna, “Teen Role Models: Who They Are, Why They Matter,” Barna Group, accessed October 11, 2016, https://barna.com/research/teen-role-models-who-they-are-why-they-matter.